Chris, a listener, emails in: “Pastor John, what does Paul mean in Romans 1:19–20 when he writes that God’s ‘invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature,’ are ‘plain’ and ‘clearly perceived’ by everyone? I have heard this verse used to say that there is no such thing as an atheist, but there have been times when I’ve felt unsure whether God truly exists even though I want to believe he does. How can I reconcile my experience with Paul’s words?”
One of the great things about the Bible — one of the things that I love so much — is that it creates problems in itself and then solves them, problems we think we have created with no solution.
Who Knows God?
So, for example, the Bible says in Romans 1:21— this is what Chris is referring to — “they knew God,” referring to every person who has ever failed to honor God and give thanks to him. So verse 21 goes like this: “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him.” So every person who fails to worship God knows God, Paul says. Then we meet someone or maybe we are that one who says, “Well, I totally do not know God. And I do not honor him as God and I do not give him thanks, because I don’t even believe God exists.” And suddenly we think: Oh, we have created a problem for the Bible.
Well, we haven’t, because the Bible already created that problem five times over. It isn’t our atheist friend or our atheist self that created this problem for the Bible. The Bible created the problem for the Bible, so that we would not be surprised when we create the problem for the Bible. Four times Paul says that people don’t know God.
- First Corinthians 1:21: “Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”
- Galatians 4:8: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.”
- First Thessalonians 4:4–5: “Each of you [should] know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”
- Second Thessalonians 1:7–8: “The Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”
- First John 4:8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
So if Paul and John say that there are many people who do not know God, then we have a clue that knowing God has different senses in the New Testament, and we need to look very closely at the context of Romans 1, which says everybody does know God, to see what he really means.
Restraining What’s Real
So let’s look at it carefully. Let’s start with verse 18, which is really going to be the key.
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).
Now, that is probably the most important contextual clue to the solution: Ungodly people who know something called the truth suppress it. And what is their conscious experience of the truth while they are suppressing it? Nothing. That is what it means to suppress the truth. They deny that they have any knowledge of the truth that they are suppressing. And according to their own present consciousness, they are right. They don’t know God. They have pushed that knowledge down (katechontōn is the Greek word: to hold down or restrain).
But there is another implication in this word. The knowledge is really there. It may be suppressed, held down, out of mind temporarily, but it is there. And so Paul goes on like this:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Romans 1:19–21).
That is, they pushed down the light of the truth about God and shut the door and chose to live in the dark, and in that dark room with the light of God held down, they don’t know God even though they know God and have seen him.
Ask for the Miracle
So the answer to Chris’s question is that his experience and the experience of atheists is real. Darkness is real. Blindness is real. And the Bible is true. He knows God. All atheists know God. And the most wonderful thing is: God overcomes the suppressing darkness by his power.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).
So I would say to Chris, and to every atheist: Deep down, under the suppressing work of your dark heart, you know God. Ask God for the miracle of this illumination, so that you can see what you are suppressing and look to Christ.